The 75th edition of Flèche Wallonne began outside the football stadium in Charleroi, with the riders happy to be racing in sunny and warm conditions yet again.
The atmosphere was relaxed before the start as the teams were presented to the crowd and gathered together in the sun. The racing and rivalry will come later today on the Mur de Huy.
The list of big-name favourites for victory on the steep slopes of the Mur is headed by local hero Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Spain's Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) Frank and Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) and Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard).
Other names to watch for include Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale), Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervelo), Simon Gerrans (Team Sky), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank).
Click here for Cyclingnews' exclusive start line picture gallery.
UCI President calls teams ignorant for walking out of meeting
Monday's team walk-out at a UCI meeting held in Brussels was the biggest indication yet that the sport could face the possibility of a breakaway league.
The majority of the ProTeams present (16 out of 18) left the meeting after the UCI refused to discuss the use of radio earpieces in races, an issue that has dominated the sport in recent months, with strikes, protests and growing frustration between the UCI and AIGCP.
In this exclusive video, UCI President Pat McQuaid talks to Cyclingnews about the walk-out, the latest developments between the sport's governing body and the AIGCP and his frustration with the situation.
Leopard Trek rider worked for his brother on the Mur de Huy
Andy Schleck admitted he was not feeling good during Flèche Wallonne and so opted to sacrifice his own chances in order to help his brother Fränk try and take on Philippe Gilbert on the Mur de Huy.
However Gilbert was again too explosive and too strong for them on the climb to the finish, leaving Leopard Trek the crumbs of a placing in the top ten. Fränk Schleck finished seventh, while Andy was 44th after easing up in the final part of the climb.
"On the next to last climb I didn’t feel very good. I'm not sure if it the weather, but I had red eyes and some breathing problems. So I decided work for the team and did the best I could for Frank in the final kilometre," he explained after the race.
"I chased before the finish because there were two riders in front. Then I dropped Fränk off on Gilbert's wheel at 500 metres to go and watched them go with about 300 metres to go."
Andy lamented about the unusual way Flèche Wallonne had unfolded but insisted he was not looking to make excuses.
"The race was not like a Classic. It was more like an Italian race where the breakaway can get a 17 minute gap after only a few kilometers," he said. "Then only three teams were chasing the break. I prefer when the speed is high since the start. But I was not on a good day so I don't want to find excuses."
Gilbert is now set for an Ardennes hat-trick or even a rarer four-race winning streak if Flèche Brabançonne is included, while Leopard Trek is still looking for its first Classic win. But Schleck refused to be down beat about his and the team's chances at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
"I'm very in confident for Sunday despite what has happened," he insisted. "Gilbert...
On Gilbert's home soil, in the Walloon region of Belgium, the new Superman humiliated the rest of the peloton on the Mur de Huy. Next Sunday Gilbert can claim a unique quadruple by winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“If I win on Sunday it would be unique because I think it's never been done before,” Gilbert said. “I'm in the position to do it but you can never be too confident. From tomorrow on, just like for any other race I'll start my mental and physical preparation for Liège so I can be at the rendezvous on Sunday. The others are very strong and the teams are very strong. We're a long way from the victory right now. Everything has still to be done.”
Gilbert not be lacking in support, as the enthusiastic home crowds showed on Wednesday on the Mur that they were ready to shout their Phil to victory in Liège. In the last 50m Gilbert even had time to raise his arms and gesture to the crowd, sending them into raptures.
Half an hour later, while Gilbert was giving interviews, the crowd was still cheering him on as if they were in a football stadium. His father Jeanot Gilbert was a proud man afterwards and he predicted that the multitudes at Liège-Bastogne-Liège would be even more impressive.
“We always organize an event on La Redoute and last...
"I felt really strong, in the race my legs worked well," Contador said near his team bus, smiling and looking relaxed. "The problem was that when I was going up the climb I wasn’t at 100 percent."
During his quick interview Contador tried to be reassuring in light of some of the rumours circulating about his form at the Vuelta a Castilla y León last week. Some riders and directeurs sportifs confided to Cyclingnews that the Spaniard was unusually uncomfortable in his teammates’ slipstream. However, Contador explained that he had mechanical problems, notably five punctures, as well as a bad cold. He finished 24th overall and won the final time trial.
Team Sky's Thomas Löfkvist may not have finished on the podium in La Flèche Wallonne, but a gutsy attack from a late-race breakaway gave him confidence of his increasing form ahead of next month's Giro d'Italia.
Several teams tried to anticipate the final showdown on the Mur de Huy by attacking over the top of the penultimate passage of the climb with 30km to go.
The classy Swede did not ride the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday but looked strong and quickly went clear alone as the other riders, and the remnants of the early break, faded and cracked on the rolling terrain.
Löfkvist was joined by Vasil Kiryienka and the two worked together, holding a 20 second advantage for 10 kilometres. The pair were caught some eight kilometres from the finish, after the Cote d'Ereffe cut into their lead and Omega Pharma-Lotto worked to control the race and set up Philippe Gilbert.
"It was good at the start but then after the short descent we turned right and we just kind of split up," Löfkvist said as he rolled to the Team Sky bus after finishing 84th, at 2:13.
"I looked behind and I was alone and so I decided I had better go. I saw Kiryienka coming up and we worked well together, he rode really...
No one had an answer for the blistering acceleration from Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) on the Mur de Huy on Wednesday, not even the combined presence of five Spanish climbers who featured in the Flèche Wallonne finale. While Albert Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) isn't considered to be an expert in the one-day races, men like Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha) and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) surely hoped to out-duel the Belgian on the steep finishing ascent.
"I would have liked to win," said Rodríguez, who finished in second place, three seconds behind Gilbert. "This course suits me much more than Amstel Gold Race's one, but it was almost impossible to win against Gilbert.
"Honestly, I didn't expect an attack from him so early [on the Mur de Huy], such an action was more expected from us, while theoretically he would have to wait for a final sprint in order to win this race. Gilbert's in such shape he did what he wanted to and he won easily.
"However, I'm optimistic about Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Not a lot of riders were able to win all three competitions comprising the Ardennes Triple. For example, Danilo Di Luca, in 2005, easily won Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne, but then he wasn't at his best at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and he lost it. Gilbert is the favorite, that's for sure, but I proved I'm in good shape, too, and I'll try to win on Sunday."
Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) entered the 75th edition of Flèche Wallonne as an outsider and the Spaniard didn't...
Luxembourg champion Fränk Schleck (Leopard Trek) was disappointed following today's Flèche Wallonne, saying he waited too long to respond to the winning attack by Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) on the final part of the Mur de Huy.
Schleck could only manage a 7th place finish, six seconds behind Gilbert at the line, but he still has high hopes for Sunday's Liège - Bastogne - Liège.